“Who will lock horns with the strongest man in the land?” In the old days you could find a boxing stand in every fun fair, but these days you have to find Compagnie Charlie if you’re in the mood for that kind of fun. The crazy members of the nomadic Paśtek family, hailing from the fictitious Berkhistan, go into battle time and again, in search of the elusive laughter that unites us.
Author: Tom Permentier // Published in Circusmagazine #64 (September 2020)
Their alter-egos, Johannes Vanbinnebeek (34) and Maxime Membrive (36), met each other during their studies together in physical theatre at the Kleine Academie in Brussels. Even then Maxime was fascinated with boxing and the possibilities it offered in terms of scenography. And Johannes knew the entire archive of iconic films from the golden age of comedy by heart, as well as its pantheon of stars. A friendship later and Compagnie Charlie was born. The cherry on the cake was Johan Dils (52) who began as an external adviser, later as coach, and finally as fellow actor in the performance Peek-a Boo!.
A little known fact about the title: ‘Peek-a-boo’ is not only a game that English speaking parents play with their small children, it is also a boxing technique, perfectioned by heavyweight Mike Tyson. He would hide behind his gloves, but instead of loving yelp of ‘peek-a-boo’, thrusting out from behind those gloves was a knock out punch that would make you see stars. This fait divers sets the tone for the comic-acrobatic show from Compagnie Charlie. However, thanks to the fine art of slapstick the boxers in this ring manage to knock each other silly without actually getting hurt in the process. We’ll get to all of that in due time, but first, because this interview takes place on a shamelessly hot summer’s day at the height of corona code red:
How do you manage in this heat?
Johan Dils: “With extreme discipline. Yesterday we played in the Royal Festival of Spa. The festival usually doesn’t program street theatre, but this year they have made an exception, thanks to Covid-19. We have been rehearsing these past days to get the performance back in our bodies. We got up every morning at 6, and started rehearsals by 6:30, for an hour and a half at a time. We took a siesta during the hottest part of the day, then picked up rehearsals again in the evening, after which we immediately crawled back into bed to be fit for the next day.”
Johannes Vanbinnebeek: “If it’s a really hot day, like yesterday for example, we get together with the organisation to try to figure out the coolest place we can set up. In a best case scenario, both we and the audience are in the shade.”
Have you ever had to cancel in this kind of extreme heat?
Vanbinnebeek: “Up until now we’ve only had to cancel because of rain, because that’s just too dangerous. Never had to cancel because of the heat, though I have to admit that it’s incredibly demanding for me to play in these conditions. A few years back I even got sunstroke during a show in Germany”.
Maxime Membrive: “Johan hadn’t joined us yet and back then we spent the whole performance on stage. Now thanks to him we each have a moment to get offstage, drink something and splash some water over bodies to cool off. We also have some ways to cool off the audience. If they are willing to brave the heat for us, we want to deliver for them”.
The other enormous challenge of the day is corona. Has it had a big influence on your show?
Dils: “First we had to ask ourselves if we were willing and/or able to adapt our performance. But when we got an offer to come and play, we immediately said yes. A lot of other companies haven’t gotten any of those chances. We had to adapt a lot to comply with the rules of social distancing. Yesterday was our first test run. The reactions have been positive.”
Can you give an example of something you had to adapt?
Dils: “Usually we play a lot with people in the audience. We literally go into the audience to pull people up onto the stage. All that is impossible at the moment. So we had to throw out a scene with a circus bear. At a certain point in the performance a bear appears, played by Johannes. He plays around with one of the children in the audience, starts a wrestling match, and in the end throws the kid over his shoulder and carries him off. So we had to make a new musical number instead, where Maxime plays accordeon and the bear accompanies him on the bells. The scene’s not bad but it’s really intimate. And the following scene is very energetic so the transition has now become really difficult. It certainly doesn’t feel right yet, so we’ll have to go back and do some more tweaking.”
Membrive: “For the rest we make sure that our characters respect the rules…”
Vanbinnebeek: “…and certainly don’t make a point of commenting on that.”
Membrive: “When we played yesterday, I really had to get used to all those face-masks. The only way to build a relationship with the audience is through eye-contact. We have to give a lot more, toujours donner, donner, donner – but we also get a lot back. I have discovered once again how important it is in these times to bring culture to the streets, accessible to everyone.”
Has your company been seriously damaged by this lockdown?
Vanbinnebeek: “Usually our season begins in April, this year things slowly started up around the beginning of August.”
Dils: “We missed out on taking our show to the promotion festival Chalon dans la rue, so as a result we have also missed out on all the French playing dates next season that would have come from those performances. And we really need France if we want to continue playing Peek-a-boo!”
How do you feel about the compensations and the approach that the Flemish government has taken to the pandemic?
Membrive: “Up until now we don’t seem to have any right to compensation. That has to do with the nature of our contracts. Individually we are still looking at how to get some support. It is rather absurd, because there are different rules for all three of us, Johan lives in Flanders, Johannes is in Brussels, and I live in Wallonia. But we are all part of the same Belgian company!”
Vanbinnebeek: “I must admit that I am very bad at trying to figure out all of that.”
Dils: “We are lucky to have an artist’s statute, very important in these times. And we have gotten funding from the Circus Decree for our new performance Rakanyak. That gives us the prospect of new work.”
Vanbinnebeek: “So we are the lucky ones. Each of us know many other artists that are really suffering right now.”
What can you tell us about the new creation?
Dils: ”The new play begins where the last one left off. We will continue to work with the characters Boğa and Galli Pas͑tek from Peek-a-boo!, the two boxing brothers from Berkhistan traveling around Europe with their uncle Patasj.”
Vanbinnebeek: “In the meantime we have developed a whole mythology around our characters. The rest of the family stayed in Berkhistan, which is somewhere between Russia and Turkmenistan. We’ve made up family stories to explain the ties between the characters we are playing. And we don’t only speak ‘Berkti’ during the performance, but also before and afterwards. We make up new words for the language during every performance.”
Dils: “The language is vaguely inspired by Turkish, Albanian, Armenian and Esperanto. For example Boğa means steer in Turkish. It says something about his character. There is also a steer worked into his costume.”
On your website there is a whole list of old film stars who have influenced your playing style: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Tommy Cooper, Rowan Atkinson and the gang from Monty Python. How many hours did you spend at the movies?
Vanbinnebaak: (laughing) “Our common love for old films is the mainspring behind the company. And even if we have seen a lot, we still put on a film to watch once in a while at the end of a work day. Those artists are all particular to themselves but they all make us laugh. We often talk about specific gags we’ve seen and come up with new gags in the same style. So those old films are somehow always present in our work.”
Membrive: “For the rest if we got too tired during the rehearsals we watch compilation films of accidents, falls and failed stunts from real life. A half an hour of those films is always enough to get our motors started up again.”
Do you have personal favourites from the list?
Vanbinnebeek: “My favourite is Chaplin. He always was, even before we started the company. Just like everyone else I was aware of the figure of Chaplin, but one day I bought a film of his and actually watched him in action. Soon the other films would follow. I just love him. If I manage to get one of his gags right it can make my day. His personal style, that combination of humor and emotion, really appeals to me. As a craftsman he is my huge example”.
Your poster, with the two boxers clenched in an embrace, must certainly be a nod to the famous boxing scene from Chaplin’s City Lights.
Vanbinnebeek: “Of course. Sometimes those references are intended, like a particular piece of music or a gag taken directly from Chaplin, right down to the name of the company, but sometimes they slip in when you don’t even notice. It is just part of our collective memory. By the way Chaplin wasn’t the only one who created a slapstick version of a boxing match, many of the old masters had their own versions of a boxing scene. It was a shared repertoire. We refer a lot to their gags, but we make sure we are not just copying them, but rather creating our own versions and developing our own particular style within that tradition.”
Your favourite, Maxime?
Membrive: “Buster Keaton. I am so impressed by the athletic aspect of his work, incredibly visual and well composed, with a big role always given to the decor. His facial expression is minimal but his physical expressiveness is incredible. And I am very touched by how he always manages to rise above the difficult situations he finds himself in, again and again and again.”
Dils: “There are so many comics I have discovered, thanks to Johannes and Maxime. What always strikes me about Chaplin and Keaton is the humanity in their stories. That is also the case with Laurel and Hardy, because the relationship between them is always the most important thing, more important than what is actually going on at the moment. There’s poetry in that.”
To what extent have those old films actually influenced your work?
Dils: “One of the things we have learned from the silent films is the focus of the camera. We film parts of our rehearsals on a regular basis, in order to discover what draws the attention of the audience. That can be a movement, but it can also be a prop or a character. Once we know where that focus is we can tune the rest of the play.”
Membrive: “We started by developing material as if we were making a film. Afterwards we made the necessary adaptations for street theatre, For example, though the piece is built around boxing, it’s not like we are out to promote violence. If you play a boxing match from a film on the street, it quickly feels violent. With film it seems easier to avoid that, but for the street, you have to adapt.”
Vanbinnebeek: “And since we play for all ages, we make sure that we only use comic violence, without sending out the signal to kids that they should do this at home. Children get that really quickly, it’s the adults who sometimes raise an objection.”
Dils: “In spite of the violence, the characters actually take good care of one another.”
In the time of Chaplin and Keaton slapstick was popular for young and old. Now you have stand-up comedy, parody, black humor and all sorts of genres competing for the attention of the audience. What led three young people like yourselves to the choice for slapstick? Where does that love come from?
Membrive: “We knew we wanted to combine physical theatre with comedy, but I didn’t even know the word ‘slapstick’ until Johannes brought it up one day. Watching those old films together, I discovered how much they made me laugh as well. For us that has always been the litmus test for new material, it has to make us laugh as well. Slapstick is the thread which runs through our work. It is essential to our identity, even if it is an incredibly difficult technique to master.”
Vanbinnebeek: “And yet we are out to offer more than just gags, We spend a lot of time on the world of the characters.”
Dils: “Slapstick is very human. Everyone understands those stories, recognises themselves in them. It is a form of humor that doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, young and old, or different nationalities. Everyone knows what it’s like to get smacked. The fact that our characters literally do get knocked around, but always get up again, gives a particular energy to our play. People have told us that they keep coming back, just to get another dose of that energy.”
Vanbinnebeek: ”When we played at the Alexanderplatz in Berlin, there were always lots of homeless people and drunks who came to watch. They watched every performance and came to thank us afterwards with big hugs.”
Have you ever been victims of condescension, from audience members or even other colleagues, because of the style you have chosen to work in?
Membrive: “Up until now it’s been pretty much the opposite. Loads of colleagues find it very cool that we have concentrated on the genre of slapstick.”
Vanbinnebeek: “I always have to think of a scene in a film from Dick Van Dyke (the American comic known from Mary Poppins, Ed.) in which he talks about the difference between high comedy and low comedy. He explains that slapstick is passé and no longer funny, as he stumbles from accident to accident. It’s hilarious. Proof that slapstick is universal, and that it always has been.”
In your promotion text it says: ‘a performance with a laugh and with a tear’. The laugh is obviously a cinch for you, the tear would seem to me much more difficult. How many tears have you managed to evoke?
Dils: (laughing)”When people come up to us after the show, still in the world of the characters, for me that’s proof that they not only had a good laugh, but were also touched to some degree. There are poetic moments in our performance, at one point the characters talk about the family back home in Berkhistan, and especially their mama.”
Vanbinnebeek: “with a laugh you create affection for the characters, but when Maxime plays a love song on his accordeon, there’s a deeper connection that occurs. At that point I am in the wings, so I can’t see the audience, but I always hear a small sigh of emotion from the audience.”